Insoluble Pancakes: Locating the Lynchian in The Third Policeman

When considering the works of David Lynch it is not uncommon to encounter the opinion—presented by very intelligent, observant critics—that Lynch’s work is without precedent. In an interview with Charlie Rose novelist David Foster Wallace described Blue Velvet (and by extension Lynchianism) as “a kind of surrealism” which lacks any real outside influence. “There’s a debt to Hitchcock somewhere but it is an entirely new and original kind of surrealism” which doesn’t “[come] out of a previous tradition” and that it is “completely David Lynch.”

To clarify what is meant when using the term “Lynchian” I again refer to David Foster Wallace. “Lynchian might be that the term ‘refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter.’” So the Lynchian is the banal juxtaposed with yet containing the disturbing while the disturbing also contains that banality. A real life example Wallace uses to concretize the point is that “Ted Bundy wasn't particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims' various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughly Lynchian.”

Lynchianism is presented as a kind of surreal irony divorced from influence, but one cannot help but acknowledge the Lynchianism in works which predate his output, in particular The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. The novel, which is the final work produced by O’Brien, concerns an unnamed protagonist who kills a man for money only to find himself trapped in a police station by two highly eccentric policemen when he is unable to locate the box containing the money. The plot becomes more outrageous when the protagonist is presented with incomprehensible inventions created by Policeman MacCruiskeen as well as an infinitely productive underground world introduced by Sargent Pluck.

The Lynchian is encountered early in the novel and continues throughout. The first example that is easily identifiable is when the protagonist enters the recently murdered man’s house. The protagonist is told by his accomplice in murder that the box containing the money is hidden under a floorboard. When the protagonist enters the house to retrieve the box he is instead faced with the man that he had killed. The man’s body is injured in a way consistent with the murder, yet he is still alive.

Rather than panic, run away, attempt to re-kill the man, or any other behavior one might act out given the circumstance, the protagonist simply discusses the man’s tendency to state things in the negative. In other words, the improbable or seemingly supernatural event coincides with the mundane. The protagonist stays the night at the man’s house then leaves the next day for the police station as part of a scheme to deceive the officers into helping him recover the cash box.

Another Lynchian element of the meeting with the man is what occurs just before the meeting itself. The protagonist believes to find the cash box under the floorboard just as his match goes out. Blinded by darkness, the protagonist reaches into the space beneath the floor only to encounter a feeling he describes as “some change which came upon me in the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable.”(23) Looking up to find himself in the room with the man, sans the cash box. This interaction with a box which displaces or shifts reality deeply resembles a sequence in the film Mulholland Drive. In the film Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) open a mysterious blue box which transforms the world in which the characters live, their roles change, and the film becomes even further divorced from what could be described as reality. In both the text and the film the changes are irreversible and are not considered any other way.

Along the way to the police station the protagonist encounters another Lynchian event. He meets a character named Martin Finnucane, a one-legged thief who spares the protagonist’s life on the basis that he too is missing a leg. In fact, Finnucane is in league with every one-legged man in the territory and their allegiance to one another is later proven to be quite significant. A trope common to Lynchianism is the image of the body deformed by injury, and since both characters had lost their limbs catastrophically their appearance is significant when considering them as Lynchian characters. The figure of the disabled person is very common throughout the corpus of Lynch. Fascinatingly, a character with a wooden leg appears in the film Wild at Heart, but figures that are blind, multiple amputees or congenitally deformed all make appearances. For The Third Policeman to contain such characters is only fitting.

Soon the protagonist makes his way to the police station, remarking that the building somehow looks “completely false and unconvincing.”(52) There he encounters Sargent Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen. What is most obviously Lynchian about the police station is that McCruiskeen uses his spare time to create objects which are entirely incomprehensible to the subjective apparatus of human perception. In particular he creates a set of nesting boxes that eventually become so small that they are invisible. MacCruiskeen is also in possession of a paint of a hue so unimaginable to the human mind that it drives others insane, though he somehow remains unaffected. This exhibition of unusual, unsettling materials yet again exists alongside the banal in the form of Sargent Pluck’s obsession with every aspect of bicycles and bicycling. It is worth mentioning that Sargent Pluck expounds a theory to the protagonist that when one rides a bicycle their atoms comingle so that the bike becomes more like the rider and vice versa. This theory has interesting parallels with the cinematic works of Shinya Tsukamoto which are also worth exploring.

Later on in the narrative Sargent Pluck acts as the ambassador of the Lynchian when he takes the protagonist down into an underground lair of seemingly endless dimensions in which anything can be created but from which nothing can be removed. In this series of rooms and hallways anything can be created, the implications of which are immediately evident to the reader, however because of the construction of the elevators nothing which is created in this realm can be brought back to the surface world. Time stands still, one cannot die of hunger or thirst, yet MacCruiskeen and Pluck spend much of their time talking about sweets or nonchalantly ambling about the complex, examining readouts. The incomprehensible and the disturbing are once again juxtaposed with the mundane.

The conclusion of the novel, as well as the accompanying letter from the author closes the circuit of Lynchianism. The protagonist had been in Hell since the beginning of the novel, and while many fantastic things reside in Hell, like MacCruiskeen’s unfathomable devices, or the underground lair, much of Hell is also concerned with the mundane and the banal. Hell is as much a spear so sharp it can prick your skin before it touches you as it is a ticket for riding a bicycle in the dark without a light. If Hell is the worst place imaginable than a Lynchian interpretation of Hell is a continuous cycle of the mundane and the horrifying, which is exactly where the protagonist is condemned to spend eternity.


O’Brien, Flann. The Third Policeman. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.

Wallace, David Foster. “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Premiere, Sept, 1996, Vol.10, p.90

Wallace, David Foster. Interview with Charlie Rose, Mar 27, 1996.

Wild At Heart. Directed by David Lynch. 1990.

Blue Velvet. Directed by David Lynch. 1986

The Elephant Man. Directed by David Lynch. 1980.

Lost Highway. Directed by David Lynch. 1997

Mulholland Drive. Directed by David Lynch, performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena   Harring 2001

Lynch, David. Catching the Big Fish. Tarcher, 2006.

O’Connor, Tom. “Disability and David Lynch’s ‘Disabled’ Body of Work.” Disability Studies Quarterly, Winter 2002, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 5-21.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. 1989.